How MINI moves people with its impressive design
BY NADINE PELZER
What do Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, the fashion model Twiggy and entrepreneur Enzo Ferrari have in common? They were all big fans of a small car. When the ”classic Mini“ was introduced in 1959, the compact car was supposed to have three main properties. It was to be affordable yet economical and, above all, offer lots of space in the smallest of areas. To this day, no other car maker has enjoyed a community like the one that has taken shape around the MINI over the years. We spoke with Oliver Heilmer, Head of Design at MINI, about brand development, brand management and the automotive design of the future.
Mr Heilmer, what does MINI embody for you?
To me, MINI is already more than just a product – it embodies an attitude. An attitude that is self-confident and modern, far removed from luxury built on sheer size. No matter how exclusively or high-priced a MINI may be equipped, on the outside, it’s always compact. To me, what this shows is that the people who drive a MINI do it mainly for themselves. Of course, they want to be independent and express their personality to some extent through the vehicle. But the way they do this is through the ‘intrinsic values’ of the vehicle. In my view, this is precisely what puts MINI in a class by itself. Added to this is that many customers have a unique, deep relationship with their vehicles.
What makes the MINI the cult vehicle it is?
At the time of the oil crisis, the Classic Mini was developed with an enormously clear objective in mind, to meet a great need. The concept of Sir Alec Issigonis – maximum interior space on MINImum road space – was first presented to the world public in 1959. This concept, coupled with a unique design, provoked a powerful reaction – it was nothing short of an automotive revolution. Then and now, what makes a MINI so special is its essence. It is approachable, and, to many owners, it is more than a vehicle. The MINI is a life companion; some even refer to it as a member of the family. Attachments such as these are extremely rare in the automobile industry.
Despite its proximity to the BMW parent group, MINI retains its independent design identity. What is the key to the success of the MINI’s design to which you are still loyal today?
The MINI 3-door Hatch is nothing short of an automotive icon. Today, every child recognises a MINI as such. The BMW Group recognised this from the outset and acted with corresponding consistency in 2001. In design, we always navigate the balance between tradition and future orientation. MINI is still relevant today because we do not dwell on yesterday or today – even though we have a strong history on which we can draw. We have also retained its friendly aura. This means that we have also resisted the ‘trend’ to make it look more aggressive – in spite of all the sportiness of a John Cooper Works model, for instance. And yet a MINI certainly has a right or obligation to provoke, as this is a highly emotional brand. We could and should allow ourselves to be more courageous more often – even if this involves making mistakes.
What, in your opinion, is the mark of good automotive design?
For me, good design is internally coherent and reflects a purpose. The function must be immediately recognisable in the form, and above all, be usable. This does not necessarily have anything to do with beauty. And for me, good design is not too loud, but it does have to polarise to a certain extent – if not, it runs the risk of being arbitrary. There are certainly examples in motor vehicle design that were very polarising at first, but then, despite or perhaps because of this, went on to pave the way for a whole new vehicle segment. The BMW X6 is such an example. Good design does not necessarily have to come from a designer, either, but a certain sense of aesthetics is necessary. The sheeting on the bodies of many classic automobiles was first honed into shape by hand, working over wood. They were not designers at that time; they were particularly talented craftsmen with precisely this sense for the unity of form and function. They probably knew nothing about theory – such as the proper way to design a taper to a surface area, or how to streamline surfaces or make targeted use of highlights – and yet they simply got it right.
When developing a new design, the characteristic features of the MINI must always be in the foreground. Which criteria need to be met?
Meanwhile, alongside the icon, the MINI 3-door Hatch, we have successfully developed a little MINI family and put it on the road. The offer extends from the MINI Convertible and the MINI 5-door Hatch to the MINI Clubman and MINI Countryman – also available as a plug-in hybrid model. So, along with the icon, we offer MINIs with more space, even for families or SUV-lovers. Each of these ‘family members’ has a character of its own. We define this character in so-called ‘character workshops’ and gradually refine it. Of course, there are still the iconic elements that make a MINI recognisable at first glance. These include, for example, the round headlights, the hexagonal grill, the roof in contrasting colour or the central circular instrument in the interior. These elements must be integrated into the different vehicle categories or tailored to the individual characters. A few days ago, for the first time, we introduced the new MINI 3- and 5-door Hatches and the MINI Convertible in which we have further developed the round, iconic daytime running lights in the front and now offer the rear lights in a Union Jack design.
How might we imagine the creative process at MINI Design?
As automotive designers, we are shaping a part of mobility and thus an important part of our future. Naturally, even we do not know exactly what the future will bring. I am convinced, however, that as designers, we will make a positive contribution with the technological changes we are currently experiencing. Our incentive to make the best of this exciting time of upheaval is almost boundless. Each day, I sense in my team and in myself this constant, inner drive to shape and design. The creative process – or, better: the tasks or topics we are dealing with – are diverse. Depending on the type of project or the phase within product development, we are involved in sketch phases, 3D modelling, clay modelling or presentations. In the case of a series development, much of the work of our designers consists of intensive and regular interaction with the project engineers. Here, too, our creativity is required at all times. It is a long and sometimes arduous path by the time a MINI rolls off the line, but the path is also a very fine one. The feeling of seeing your ‘own’ vehicle on the road is indescribable. An absolute dream job.
Before joining MINI, you were head of Designworks, with studios in the USA, Shanghai and Munich. What do you bring to your current tasks from your experience there?
I’ve never seen and learned so much before in such a short period of time. I certainly come to my current task with openness, curiosity, diversity, energy and speed. The diversity and varying depth of the projects in three completely different locations was also enormously exciting. Each of these locations embodies the country, the culture and its influences. It was a very formative and rich experience. In fact, there really are specific topics one keeps in the back of one’s mind. One of them is the field of aviation. This is an area in which autonomous travel has already been a reality for years, and the things people are going to do for so long in this defined space is no longer a question. We can certainly learn a lot here for the automotive sector.
What do you personally need in order to be creative?
Things that inspire me stimulate my creativity. That can be anything – from music or furniture design to the special aesthetics of technology. There are products that have been designed and built by engineers from a purely technical point of view – and yet they exude an incredibly harmonious aesthetic. This might be an old Italian espresso machine, for example. And there are also stories, whether in book form or on film, that deal with the future – a future that is sometimes far removed from the here and now.
Increasing digitalisation is also influencing automotive design. To what extent is rethinking required in this regard?
New technologies are always exciting for us designers. They are inspiring and can set something completely new in motion. And that’s exactly where I see great potential for MINI. The dynamic is similar in the case of digitalisation. For me, digitalisation is one of the key topics – now and in the future. I envision the path to digitalisation for MINI as more human, warmer, more personal than for other car brands. In future, the design of a new product will be expanded by a few dimensions. In addition to its pure form, the experience, fragrance and feel of a product, and the ways in which we interact with it will be involved as well – more or less simultaneously. One example I often mention is the topic of 3D printing. Thanks to this technology, in future I will no longer be bound by classic toolmaking and its premises. I can now freely design in virtual space for the first time. I can vary and, most significantly, change the materiality to print something new. In my view, this variety is a great leap in the creative process, and we are only beginning to grasp the possibilities. This is an absolutely fascinating new field.
The MINI E was the first electric vehicle in the entire BMW Group and a trailblazer for current BMW i models. The first series-produced MINI with electric drive is now set to be released onto the market in 2019. What are the greatest challenges involved here?
In my opinion, electromobility presents us designers with disproportionately more opportunities and freedoms than challenges. The all-electric MINI that will be presented next year will be a true MINI; at the same time, it will exhibit its electrical nature. Certainly through unconventional and innovative details, on the one hand referencing the traditional MINI world of the past while at the same time connecting this to new technologies. 3D printing will also be an issue in this respect. In the MINI Electric Concept, which we showed in autumn 2017, the hexagonal grill was largely closed. Naturally, we’re aware that this drive technology also requires cooling air, but not necessarily in the same place. This, in turn, is precisely the kind of design twist we can enlist to clearly distinguish the electric MINI from one with conventional drive technology.
In future, BMW intends to heighten its focus on designing brand-specific, digital interaction experiences inside the vehicle. What is planned for MINI in this regard?
I am convinced that our focus as automotive designers will shift in future: What we are designing is no longer just vehicles, but brand experiences. MINI will be recognisable through the experience and through an honest concept that delights the customer and remains unique. I assume that our customers’ basic needs in future will be similar to what they are today. They want to be mobile, and at the same time they do not want to miss out on anything in terms of digital interaction. In future, systems will learn more and more and be able to anticipate the user’s needs. Let’s take connectivity, for example. At this point, we’re no longer talking about display sizes, but about emotional attachments at multiple levels. The main anchor is intuitive interaction, and that is precisely what we seek to design. I see the developmental path for MINI as a focus not on technology, but on people and the ways in which they communicate. This type of ‘shy tech’ – fully present yet entirely hidden – suits MINI very well, in my view.
What new trends are you currently working on?
In the field of automotive design, the term ‘trend’ has a temporal dimension completely different to that of probably the majority of the population. When we talk about trends, we are in search of currents that could become a trend in five to ten years’ time. This is simply due to the development and production cycles of the vehicles we create. Consequently, we need to know today what kinds of things will concern people in the years ahead. One tool for this is the so-called ‘360-degree view’ of the entire world, which is constantly updated. Precise timing helps us recognise whether a trend will materialise as such – or simply subside again. For quite some time, it has become apparent that individualisation – the desire people have to stand out from the crowd – is steadily increasing. With this in mind, we at MINI are the first car brand to offer the customer a direct opportunity to become a designer, and to design specific parts of the car themselves – the decorative interior trim, side scuttles or light projection, for instance. That is new in this form. The use of new materials and innovative processing is also a topic. For example, in the MINI John Cooper Works GP Concept, which we presented as the brand’s sportiest bookend at the same time as we presented the MINI Electric Concept, we 3D-knit the seat covers. I also see the potential for future trends in things that cause ‘unrest in the system’. Conscious omission of seemingly important elements such as the steering wheel would be an example of this. Ultimately, technologies and designs are a prerequisite; to me, though, the main driving force behind trends are the people themselves.
How does MINI benefit from the innovation power of BMW?
Within the BMW Group, all of the brands really do benefit from one another. Currently, the MINI Yours Customised offer makes us pioneers within the BMW brand. At the same time, when it comes to electromobility and sustainability, we greatly benefit from the BMW i sub-brand. Generally speaking, multi-brand interaction is very important and very helpful. With this in mind, the heads of design of the BMW, BMW i, BMW M, MINI, Rolls-Royce and BMW Motorcycles (sub-)brands meet with Adrian van Hooydonk once each week. The active exchange of perspectives, experiences, technologies and much more enables us to gain a depth of knowledge that benefits every single brand for itself.
What is your vision for the future of MINI?
From my point of view, MINI is a brand that has to constantly evolve and even change. What we have accomplished thus far in terms of product range is very good. In terms of quality in particular, we are better than ever before – and better than many of our competitors. Nevertheless, it is clear to me that the path cannot be evolutionary alone. There are major topics headed our way: autonomous driving, electromobility, digitalisation and shared services are just a few of these. And these must be designed. In this regard, it’s particularly important to me to keep the substance of MINI authentic. This is an urban brand, and it must remain so in future. This is why, in my view, the future MINI is all-electric. Another important topic that will concern us much more in future is the relationship between the vehicle and the customer. We know that our customers have a unique relationship with their vehicle – and even with the brand itself. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if, in future, people could communicate and interact in ways otherwise limited only to fellow people and good friends, in lieu of menus and clicks? And that is where I see great potential for MINI as a companion.
Oliver Heilmer has been in charge of MINI Design since 1st September 2017. The 43-year-old was previously President of Designworks, a subsidiary of the BMW Group, with design studios in Los Angeles, Munich and Shanghai. Heilmer has been a part of the design team of the BMW Group for 18 years. Until 2016, he was responsible for interior design of the BMW brand.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin, issue Q1 2018. Picture credit © MINI